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Gaming chair offers advice: slow down

Date: 4/19/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

SPRINGFIELD — In a candid question and answer period with area business people and municipal officials, Stephen Crosby, chair of the state Gaming Commission, said, "We have only one chance to get this right."

In a question about competition from other expanded gaming in other New England states, Crosby said the commission doesn't have to award the three licenses the gaming legislation created. It could grant two or one or none, he said.

Crosby also underscored the commission's job is not to guide municipalities through their own selection process.

"If a local [government] makes a mistake, if doesn't impugn our integrity, if it doesn't screw our particular process but it's a mistake in our view, that's their business," he said.

Crosby spoke at a meeting sponsored by the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield on April 17.

Crosby said the current timetable for the commission to complete its phase one of the selection process — the financial and criminal vetting of the casinos companies that have applied for a license — won't be completed until September or October.

He said there are 11 casino developers with a total of 300 individuals and entities resulting in 21,000 pages of information.

This timetable means the results of investigation into the competing casino developers in Springfield wouldn't be known until months after the city would like to put MGM Resorts International and Penn National Gaming on the ballot.

Kevin Kennedy, the city's Chief Development Officer, has said in the past, the city would like to piggyback the casino question onto the special senate election on June 25.

Crosby said that by statue the question must go to the ballot 60 days after a host agreement has been reached by the mayor and approved by the City Council. That means the city would have to accomplish these steps by April 25.

Crosby said the commission is considering — and he implied the measure would pass — a provision that would allow communities to vote on a casino developer before the investigations are completed. He said that officials in Springfield and Everett had requested it.

Under the provision, Crosby said the mayor and city council of a community would have to formally ask the commission permission to have an election and then agree to an advertising campaign that would be approved b the commission reach all voters informing them of the city's decision and that it is possible to vote for a company the commission deems "unsuitable."

Crosby said initially the commission members believed that a community approving a developer who might be eliminated from consideration was ill advised. The commission decided to consider changing this approach because of pressure from municipalities who want to "speed up" the process.

Springfield City Councilor Tim Allen asked for clarification about having an election before the vetting is complete, Crosby said the commission "has urged the city to slow down."

Crosby told Allen, "There are a lot of moving pieces [in the process]." He then offered a scenario of Springfield voters approving one developer, that one being forwarded to the commission whose investigation rejects it.

The conclusion would be "Springfield is out," he added.

When asked what would happen if a casino that receive a license don't live up to the host agreement, Crosby said, "We've talked about penalties."

He acknowledged there is a difference between the "ups and downs of business" and "a song and dance."

"There will be serious penalties for bad faith," he promised.

He added the commission would be tracking the construction process of the facilities, making sure the developers use the number of workers and types of materials they specified in the agreements. Once open, the commission would be "tracking their operations."

The license for all of the casinos will be for 15 years and there is an economic reason for casino developers to live up to their plans, Crosby said — they want to have the licenses renewed.

Crosby said the commission has been trying to encourage smaller communities in the running for a license not to be "railroaded" by "big slick guys from out of town."

"Take your time on these deals," Crosby said the smaller communities have been advised.

When asked about what will the expanded gaming business might look like in 2016 the probable year when Massachusetts casinos might open with competition from Connecticut, Rhode island and probably New Hampshire, Crosby said that gaming operations in those states have been "anticipated for a long time."

He said, "They will do everything they can do to retain their customers."

Crosby admitted there is a "macro decline and a serious one" in casino gaming nation-wide. Revenues, he added, in Pennsylvania, are down 9 percent.

Crosby also spoke about the role of abutting communities who are seeking mitigation funds for the impacts a casino might have on them. He said there have been two schools of thought from some neighboring towns and cities that these agreements are either an ATM or a way to kill a casino proposal.

"Neither will work," he said.

The commission will assist neighboring communities in making sure they will get a "fair" amount of mitigation.

When asked when elected officials surrounding community should approach the developers, Crosby said they should start the conversation now.

Crosby said that people interested in following the commission's progress should log onto